I almost made a catastrophic error yesterday with the hummingbird nest.
As far as I could tell, the mother had vanished three days earlier. She was no longer sitting on her eggs, she wasn’t feeding any new hatchlings. She was AWOL.
I got the ladder, climbed up, and peered into the tiny nest.
Sure enough there were two babies — dark brown, less than an inch long, smushed together like two miniature sausages.
At first they didn’t seem to be moving, and I assumed the worst. But the longer I watched, I realized yes, they were still moving. Just barely, but they were alive anyway.
Having been down this road before, having found a nest with two dead hatchlings, I was eager to avoid the same ending. I went inside the house and checked online to see what rescuing the babies might entail.
People do successfully rescue them, it turns out. The process isn’t particularly complicated, though somewhat delicate and time-consuming. So I made sugar water, found a dropper, and built an artificial nest of shredded paper and dead moss. I was going to place the tiny natural nest inside the larger, fake one.
I went back outside. As I approached the nest, a hummingbird zoomed across the backyard and into the blossoming bougainvillea.
Mom was back!
Maybe she had seen me approaching the nest. Or maybe it was just feeding time. But there she was again, poking her long thin beak into the nest, tending to the newborns.
I had been seconds away from intervening, which probably would have been disastrous for the hummingbirds and definitely would have broken my general rule — when in doubt, do nothing. As Gen. Allenby says in Lawrence of Arabia, “It’s usually best.”
I was still puzzled, though, by how often the mom was away from the nest. Yes, adult hummingbirds need to eat frequently, especially when they’re eating for three. But I had figured the trips for food would be bracketed by lots of time at the nest.
I went back to the computer, this time to find out how often new hummingbirds eat.
There were conflicting reports. Some writers said hatchlings need to be fed every half-hour or so. Others said a mother feeds her young “several times a day,” which eased my worries Maybe everything really was on track.
Then I saw a statistic which put the whole thing in context. Apparently the success rate for any given hummingbird to hatch, be cared for, and then one day launch is about 20%.
And that’s not just hummingbirds. Supposedly it’s true for most other songbirds, too.
Somehow this grim statistic calmed me. It was a reminder about the overall state of affairs. Most baby birds don’t make it. It’s a bummer, but it’s how the world works.
Coincidentally, I got a similar message on Monday when I bumped into a black beetle which I’d seen several times the previous week.
“Oh, hey,” I said.
After a long silence, I tried to draw the beetle out.
“The whole garden is pretty serene and chill,” I said, “but you strike me as maybe the most serene and chill of all the species here. You have a Buddha-type vibe.”
“You’re joking, right?”
“I wasn’t meaning to.”
“This place is utter mayhem every single second of every single day.”
“It’s basically the Roman Coliseum all day and all night. And I’m always in the ring.”
“But you don’t seem to scurry around or panic,” I said. “You move at a very deliberate pace. When you move at all.”
“You don’t want to draw attention?” I said.
“Partly. It also conserves energy and allows me to dial in. I try to be aware of every single thing around me.”
“That makes sense.”
“Situations change in an instant. Can you imagine in your Back-and-Forth World if you were suddenly –“
“Wait, what’s the Back-and-Forth World?”
“You mean humans?” I said.
“Whatever word you want to use. It just seems like that’s how you spend most of your time. You go to that corner of the yard. Then you go to the garage. Then you go back to that corner of the yard. Then back to the garage.”
“I go other places,” I said.
“Don’t get me wrong,” the beetle said, “I’m sure there’s a purpose to it.”
“Sort of,” I said.
“My point is, imagine in the Back-and-Forth World if a creature three hundred times your size could suddenly appear from the sky, land next to you, and then start randomly jerking its head around, looking this way and that, and then — if it feels like it! — eat you.”
“We’re talking about birds?” I said.
“I know what you mean about how they move their heads,” I said. “It’s so random and twitchy.”
“And then there are lizards,” the beetle said.
“Oof. I forgot about lizards.”
“So disgusting. It’s like your worst anxiety dream come to life,” the beetle said. “And they’re the opposite of birds. They take it all in. They’re aware of everything, patient as hell. If one’s near you, then it becomes this excruciating, endless, slow-motion waiting game. At least with a bird, it’s quick. You get eaten or you don’t.”
“I’m realizing how far off-base I was with the ‘serene’ thing.”
“Is there any way I can help?” I said. “Maybe bring you some food? Put you in a different part of the yard?”
“It would be the same deal wherever you put me. Like they say, it’s a beetle’s life.”
“I haven’t heard that expression.”
“Actually there is one thing. Next time you see me, if I’m still alive, do what you did today. Stop and hang out for a second.”
“It helps a lot.”
“Do beetles get lonely?”
“Haha, no. When you’re here, the birds and lizards stay away.”
For a really nice account of hummingbird nesting and mothering, see Eileen Stark’s essay and photos.